It’s always worth turning up for a Poetry London launch. They offer readings by some of the best contemporary poets as well as a glass of wine. All for free. I’m more than happy to buy the magazine! I was glad I made the effort a couple of Fridays ago, despite a wet and windy evening. The readers who stood out for me at this launch of the autumn issue, No 73, were Frances Leviston and Michael Symmons Roberts.
Leviston spoke of her work-in-progress, her second collection that explores ideas of disinformation. She read the title piece, ‘Disinformation.’ An unsettling poem, it interweaves sharply-observed details of the preparations for a children’s party with more disquieting images that emerge from the voice of radio news. Leviston is a cool, assured reader of her work. I’m looking forward to the new book for which, as yet, no publication date, but, I gather, ‘Disinformation’ will appear in the TLS sometime soon. Do look out for it.
Compelling in a different way was Michael Symmons Roberts. A former Head of Development for BBC Religion & Ethics, not surprisingly, many of his poems seem to be asking – what might be an ethical way to live? Novelist Jeanette Winterson has said of Symmons Roberts: 'He is a religious poet in a secular age. His work is about the connection between the things of the spirit and the things of the world… his work is about transcendence.'
Ideas around ethics and transcendence certainly lie in the larger resonances of the work but, initially, Symmons Roberts draws the listener in with his warm, almost matter-of-fact reading style and the startling, exact details of the ‘things of the world’ in the here-and-now; the world we’re all trying to comprehend, as with these lines from ‘Offset’: "Bad guards play poker in the vaults/where my subprime lies in a velvet bag/and nonperforming assests float in jars."
Symmons Roberts explained that ‘Offset’ - along with the other poems he read - is from his next book-length project: 150 poems each of 15 lines. Why? These are loosely based on the Psalms, of which there are 150. The Psalms reflect upon man’s relationship to God and cover the full range of human emotions. Symmons Roberts’s project seems to be to reflect on man’s relationship to the world – to his fellow man and to the natural world. His gaze is wide; although he looks the current financial crisis squarely in the eye, in ‘On Grace,’ he seems to suggest reasons for optimism:
October ripens under leaf-mould,
ancient limewashed walls grow warm
in late, slant sun. A deer halts in a field alone.
And we are not lost yet.
To write 150 poems of 15 lines each is a tight constraint for a writer to impose on himself but, on the evidence of the five he read, it becomes clear that the restriction allows him both to range wide but also to focus on the precise moment/insight. On the page the five poems each look quite different – interesting how many different forms 15 lines might take. Though reading at this autumn launch, these psalm-based poems appeared in the spring issue of Poetry London – worth getting the back issue. I’m looking forward to the full collection in spring 2013.
Other poets featured in the autumn issue include Canadian Karen Solie, pictured on the cover [above], Michael Longley, Gillian Allnutt, Daljit Nagra, Rosie Shepperd and the prize winners of the 2012 Poetry London competition. First prize went to Liz Berry. If you want to know what makes a winning poem, read judge Neil Astley's [Mr Bloodaxe] report which features along with an interview with Annie Freud and much more.